Fida Mohammad*  Iffat Tabassum**


This paper will examine the importance of geography in Taliban insurgency against the US along with distinctive features of Pashtun culture. As history is unfolding in the Pashtun belt of the Pak-Afghan border region, it is pretty much reminiscent of former Soviet Union’s (USSR) departure from Afghanistan February 15, 1989, where Afghanistan was left to Mujahedeen warlords. At present after the formal end of the US occupation of Afghanistan in 2014 has created almost the same problem with the slight difference that there is a weak and corrupt government in Kabul whose writ is limited to major cities and simultaneously destabilized Pakistan in general and Pashtun areas in Particular. Our research question is looking for causes for the failure of both the US military strategy as well as transplanting of Western style political system in basically a tribal society. Relying on history, we believe that both the former Soviet Union and the Unitest States under-estimated cultural reseleince, geographic realities and fighting endurance of Afghan in general and Pashtun in particular.

Keywords: Taliban and the US occupation


One of the longest American wars is winding up in a to a politico-military a dead-end in Afghanistan, and that is consistent with those of previous empires that have tried to pacify the region. Afghanistan’s landlocked and mountainous geography, harsh climates, simpleway of life (i.e., less dependent on modern amenities), lack of roads and historically evolved warrior ethos (most of the time Pashtuns were at war with invader from its north) have proved to be the greatest defense and offense assets of Pashtuns against foreign intrusions. These aspects have proved their efficacy starting from Alexander the Great adventure in mid-300 B.C. to British colonial project in the 19th century, the former USSR in the last quarter of 20th century and the current US-led NATO war-on-terror in the present time. One sign of the US current kulturkampf is that 14 years ago most of the Afghan women were covering themselves in public space with completely covered veils (burqas) and today women still use burqa. The Taliban carry on to be a significant political force and, as a result, the US and the Afghan government were in direct negotiations with Afghan Taliban in Qatar that later collapsed without making any significant step forward. Pakistan recently organized China, the US and Taliban mediation that failed after news of Mulla Omar’s death surfaced. Taliban’s relevance is noticeable in Pentagon’s November 4, 2015, statement that the United States would not aggressively pursue the Afghan Taliban in its counter-insurgency actions rather the US see them as a relevant agent in creating peace in Afghanistan (“Afghanistan,” November 5, 2015).
Demographically Pashtuns are about forty million that inhabits a large area in both Afghanistan and Pakistan that has never been fully assimilated into both states (Akbar Ahmad cited in Ginsburg, 2011, p. 89). History and origin of Pashtun tribes are shrouded in mystery; there are only theories about their history. Molvi Mir Ahmad (2010) and others have a detailed discussion about the lineage of Pashtuns, but all of them are theories.  Kakakhel’ comprehensive book on Pashtun’s history (Pashtun Tarikh Kay Aayeenay Mein) covers many aspects of Pashtun people and the role of geography in their culture (2007). Tarikh-e-Pashtun provides an excellent genealogical account of Pashtun tribes but has little to offer as far as the cultural evolution of Pashtun (Gandapur, 1979). Most of the Pashtuns live in the mountainous and geographically harsh milieu and without taking into account the physical environment, it is quite difficult to comprehensively  understand the cultural complexities of the region. Pashtun belt is surrounded by imposing Pamirs, and awesome Himalayas, that is drawn out and crisscrosses the mighty Hindu Kush ranges. Its southern section touches the Indian Ocean, in the north Oxus River separates the region from the former Soviet Republics (Wilber, 1953).
Because of its strategic location, Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan has played a central role in the lengthy military history of Asia. Alexander the Great, and fifteen hundred years later Jenghiz Khan, with a massive number of soldiers had a difficult time in this region while invading India. It is important to mention that these superior military geniuses of their time sustained substantial losses from numerically inferior Pashtun tribal force. Afghanistan is the vital road link to Central Asia but because of its geography, it is a logistical nightmare for invaders (Strausz-Hupe, 1943).  The region is a unique combination of extreme weathers, i.e., hot deserts and frigid mountains that could be a formidable challenge to any large-scale logistical operations and smooth movement of people from one place to another (Strausz-Hupe, 1943).
The mountain area located towards the northwestern part of Pakistan known as western bordering mountains constitutes many mountain ranges from the great Hindu Kush in the north to Makran hills in the south. The boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan–the Durand Line–drawn in 1893 passes through these western mountains (cf. Durand, 1899; Holdich, 1901). This border between the two countries is highly porous, and there are numerous valleys in between which are inhabited on both sides. Some passes are connecting the two nations. Due to the similarity of culture and geographical proximity population movement in these mountains is quite common both across the border and within the region. Although with the passage of time this whole area became accessible, however still few locations are not yet accessible to motorized traffic.
Besides physical and culture similarity, this entire mountainous region is characterized by barren land and limited water availability. The traditional livelihood strategies cannot fulfill the basic needs of the rapidly growing population. The possibilities for expanding economic activities and job opportunities is limited. Therefore, the inhabitants are usually engaged in two major activities in addition to their traditional economic organization. This includes out-migration to large urban centers within the country and abroad mainly to the oil-rich states of the Gulf, which has become one of the main survival strategies of the inhabitants. Secondly, many people in the region are involved in cross-border trade with the neighboring countries. However, there is fluctuation in business depending on the law and order situation in both neighboring countries as well as in tribal areas. In the past cross-border trade was an important economic activity; however presently out-migration seems more dominant strategy for survival.
Another significant opportunity was poppy cultivation in the region as this area is very suitable to grow this crop but since many years all such crops are banned by the state. Also, the war on terror, initiated by the USA, in the aftermath of the 9/11 episode has a considerable impact on these people. Their economic activities greatly suffered due to war in Afghanistan as well as military operation in these areas. In most cases, these areas were evacuated, and the inhabitants were shifted to the lowland as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The whole infrastructure was destroyed including houses, roads, irrigation facilities and other amenities. This has disturbed not only the social fabric but also the economic organization of the region. Most of the rich people have shifted and settled in urban centers where they have started various commercial activities. This has also affected the real estate business in the main urban centers like Peshawar, Islamabad, and Lahore. In these areas, urban expansion became much rapid as most of these tribal people settled there. The poor households suffered a lot as they lost all assets and still living in IDP camps.
If we imagine that historical process is governed by some causal determinations, then we believe geography will be one of the most important factors in unfolding of history. As in many other places on planet earth, geography determined not only the agro-economic feature of Afghanistan but also the fate of foreign intruders in this landlocked region. Strategically located between the arid and steppe lands of Central Asia in the northwest and the rich alluvial plains of South Asia, especially, the Punjab or the land of five rivers, in the southeast, Afghanistan served as an entry and/or exit point for empires of rising and falling regional powers such as the Sassanid Persians, Macedonian Greeks, Mauryan Indians, Muslim Arabs, and Turko-Mongols.  
At the turn of almost every second century between 500 B.C. and 1500 A.D., this region dealt with foreign militaries who, rather than settling and making Afghanistan their permanent home, used its places and people as resources for further and further invasions or defenses. Unlike the great agricultural lands of southern Mesopotamia, northern Egyptian delta and the Indus-Gangetic plains, Afghanistan with its high mountainous central plateau and the hot and arid southern deserts of subsistent agriculture discouraged massive settlement of foreign forces. In the end, it was strong group solidarity of Pashtun tribes in the face of foreign enemies and   hostile terrain of Afghanistan that thwarted the strategic designs of great powers, from Alexander to British and Russian empire builders. 
The people of Afghanistan always remained apprehensive of the foreign elements temporarily living among them. Thus the nature of Afghan geography and people, on the one hand, and the grand designs of foreigners on the other bred only suspicions and wariness between the two groups who found themselves stuck in a volatile relationship built on occupation and disloyalty (Khan, 1997). Geography offers interactional context for a given population and that, in turn, determine environment for mobilization of people in the conflictual situation. To resist occupation or challenge an oppressive government is contingent upon popular support and access to material recourse that are facilitated by the geographic contours of the region (Weidmann, 2009).
Toft (2003) believes that geographic factor plays a crucial role for deployment of fighting forces in a conflictual situation (in Weidmann, 2009). It is essential to understand the evolution of culture and its relation to geographical factors. Geography creates possibilities that humans can exploit to their advantage. Geography, according to Professor Oldknow, (2000) does not make people good or bad, but it has a utilitarian value, and it creates opportunities. Certain geographies are conducive to illegal economies and guerilla warfare and Pashtun belt offers these potentials.

Physical and Anthropogenic Characteristics of the study area

This area does not have bumper cash crops, and that could create economic uncertainty. By this, we mean, poor or no industrial base, poor agriculture, limited business opportunities, and poor and inadequate education facilities. This situation has created a typical scenario for freedom and according to Dani (1967) this tribals had a, highest passion for freedom. “Having little property to defend or lose, they were ever ready to stake their lives for freedom, which was their greatest stake. They were born guerilla soldiers who knew every break in the hills and twist in the valleys” (Dani, 1967 p. 125) 
We assume that uncertainty was pre-existing in the social and economic structure of the area and was precipitated by the Afghan war and its subsequent effects. We further assume that marginal people are very flexible in their value-system. In this context flexible morality or value-relativity make economic pragmatism possible. We also assume that tribesmen know that it is an illegal activity in Pakistan, and at the same time they know that its illegality makes it a valuable act. Value-relativity is determined by the interaction of cultural traditions, economic, and geographical factors. Economically pragmatic people are usually high in Entrepreneurial Skills. It would be fair to say that every human activity has Geographic conditions.
      When one looks at Afghanistan/KP, the physical geography, it is both Corridor and a Barrier. The combination of corridor and barrier makes movement possible but because its remoteness and rough terrain enemies cannot easily access it. The majestic Hindu Kush mountain ranges as a classic barrier. The physical geographic milieu of southern and eastern Afghanistan and the region bordering Pakistan are ideal for guerilla warfare (Collins, 2013).
We do not imply geographic determinism, but if there is motivation to resist then geography is a great facilitator of the insurgency. The social and cultural elements that have engendered robust and consistent resistance “to outside control and the physical geography that has enabled local forces to harass and target invaders” (O’Loughlin, Witmer, & Linke, 2010, p. 466). 
      Because of its isolation, the illegal economy of smuggling and narcotic flourished. One can transport merchandise from the Central Asia to Pakistan, and from China via Wakhan to Iran, all sorts of opportunities are available. It is this ideal combination of barrier and corridor that attract smugglers and drug traffickers.

Geography and Insurgency

Insurgencyis a struggle for delegitimizing government or occupation through subversive armed activities with the goal to occupy power and resources of space by deploying irregular military forces along with political wing for gaining popular support (United States Marine Corps Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency (GAI, 2012) nicely described insurgents. An insurgency is a form of fighting where a small group of fighter attack big armies using hit and run tactics. An armed group could be fighting for ethnic identity, religion, and collective interests.
Insurgents try to undermine writ of the government and shatter public perception by sabotaging infrastructure and other state institutions of law and order. Once ordinary people see the weakness of government, they actively, passively and our of fear support these armed groups.
Guerrilla warfareis amorphous because it lacks front lines, sequenced battles, or campaigns; a long-drawn-out stratagem, often enduring for many decades (GAI, 2012).
Unfavorable geography can doom an insurgency because of its exposure to government attacks and lack of supplies. Galula (2006) enumerates significance of geography in greater detail. He believes physical contour of a region, its size, climate, demographic profile, economic resources and proximity to international borders ultimately determine the viability of an insurgency.
South-East Afghanistan and North-West frontier belt of Pashtuns are conspicuous for what Scott called "anti-state nationalism" or tribal confederacy that is quasi-stateless (in Ginsburg, 2011). State institutions are definitely weak, but it is not anarchic. Pashtun Code of honor called Pashtunwali mediate everyday problem. It will be germane to our topic to discuss briefly cultural aspect of Pashtuns.
Pashtunwali is an unwritten code of social practices and dispute resolution mechanism that offers some direction in everyday disputes. One indicator of its resilience is that ordinary people still go to time-honored rules of Pashtunwali for settling their disputes. (Haring, 2010). Jirga is a socio-political institution that settles the dispute within the framework of Pashtunwali (Ginsburg, 2011). Jirga is an institutional mechanism for interpretation and enforcement of Code of Pashtunwali (Kakar, 2004, p. 2).  One major strength of Pashtunwali is it vagueness and the code be calibrated realities on the ground and changing social environment. Sometimes their decisions are barbaric, but it is a strong deterrent to a would-be offender in this seemingly lawless region. Functionally speaking it has maintained a social order (Ginsburg, 2011). Pashtun people interacting with hostile geography decentralized social organization has evolved with the passage of time warrior ethos. Pickering described mountain people beautifully:
Savage yet of rigid morality. Revolutionary yet conservative. Covetous yet provident. Democratic yet opposed to civilisation. Passionately independent yet of arrested political development. Honest yet piratical. Lawless yet united. Healthy yet closely intermarried. The flurry of adjectives continues: Mountaineers are warlike, courageous, wretched, brigands, brave, lovers of liberty, half barbarian, isolated, poverty-stricken, reactionary, exponents of retarded civilisation, rude and simple, proud, vigorous, rustic, honourable, industrious, frugal, and even Short ( Pickering 2011, p. 4)
Pashtuns are generally speaking ethnocentric and romanticize their culture and physical space. They have a strong group solidarity when it comes to foreign enemies. Geography also has symbolic value for rallying emotions of people. Khyber Pass and Tatara Hills in Khyber Agency are romanticized in Pashto folk and literary traditions as symbols of Pashtun’s freedom loving spirit. Lincoln thinks that Highlanders are cliquish and insulate themselves to out groups. They are generally cordial but do not easily mix with others groups (2002). Their lifestyle is a unque set of contradiction and Abdul Ghani Khan a Pashtun poet and intellectual have exquisitely summarized character of a Pashtun in following quotes:
The Pathan (Pashtuns) has a tender heart but tries to hide it under a rough and gruff exterior. He is too good a fighter to leave his weakest part uncovered. "Don't be so sweet," he says, "that people may swallow you up, nor so bitter that people may spit you out," So he covers his sweetness with bitterness, self-preservation pure and simple, His violent nature, strong body and tender heart make a very unstable combination for living but an ideal one for poetry and colour. He keeps a rough face because he does not want you to see his soft eyes (Khan, n.d., p. 12).
Pashtuns love their pride even if financially they are indigents.  According to Ghani Khan (Khan, n.d.), a Pashtun will rather rob somebody than extending a hand for charity. Warrior philosophy, rugged geography, the spatial distribution of population and along with State capacity or occupying forces inability to control remote and inaccessible area is limited played a key role in insurgencies. Insurgents sustainability is their capacity to endure and absorb attacks and geography can assist in that aspect (Raleigh, 2010). Schutte thinks that disproportionate use of force by government forces in remote areas could result in collateral damages that in turn is a great recruiting tool for insurgents (2014). Raleigh correctly believes that hostile geography accompanied by thick forests provide excellent cover for insurgents and simultaneously state theability to project force diminishes in such areas (2010).
It is relatively difficult to projecting power in a region where the terrain is rough, and knowledge of the area by insurgent provide sanctuary and a stable place from where they can collect revenues (Buhaug et al., 2009). Similarly, Herbst believes that distance plays a significant role in irregular warfare. Government forces are clearly physically challenged if they have to operate over a long and hostile area. Demographic distribution, e.g., sparsely populated areas pose a significant logistical challenge to government and occupation forces (2000). Toft thinks that in an asymmetrical warfare a poorly equipped group could compensate their military inferiority with geographic advantages (in Buhaug et al., 2009). Physical barriers for movement of military forces and hardware e.g. bad or no roads could have heavy financial cost over a long period. Poor knowledge of geography and cultural incompetency generally result in hurting local traditional sensitivities and that in turn enhance insurgent support. Geography facilitates retreat of insurgents when under pressure where they can replenish their resources for a sustained campaign. Rebels who are familiar with the layout of the region are in better position against superior military forces such as former USSR and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Buhaug et al. correctly hypothesized:

  1. Engagements situated in the rough terrain the can be sustained for a longer time.
  2. Skirmishes in the proximity of an international boundary will have long endurance.
  3. Therefore, other things being equal the military superiority of a sitting government declines as it moves to far flung areas away from their main military garrisons (Buhaug et al., 2009).

Using analogical reasoning Taber (1970) nicely captured American dilemma in Afghanistan. He thinks that in flea and dog encounter flea has an upper hand because of its small size is highly maneuverable. A flea can move in different directions very easily while dog because of its size cannot keep pace with a flea and in the end, the dog is exhausted by a small enemy. In military language, the dog becomes very weak and succumbs to fatigue because of overstretched energies against a less visible enemy. The Same logic applies to guerrilla warfare where the goal is not winning a decisive battle but to exhaust enemy in series of small skirmishes that in the long run will lead to the defeat of a bigger force.
Spinney (2011) reiterated Tabar’ conclusion that in a long drawn war in an alien territory can exhaust a superior force against a small but mobile enemy. Because of the unpredictability of insurgent strategy a bigger force loses mush needed initiative. This frustration could lead reliance on air power against insurgents that most of the time result in the death of non-combatant civilians which further alienate the locals. It has been attributed to Taliban that “The Americans have a clock, but we have the time” meaning the US has schedule while for insugents it is an open-ended enterprise (Spinney, 2011, para. 3-4).
Another significant dimension of the insurgency is demographic distribution. People who are highly concentrated in a particular locale will generally have strong group solidarity and will be deeply attached to their land. People who are emotionally attached to their space will fight any invader who threatens it. Settlement pattern and frequent interaction among its inhabitants better equip them to coordinate their activities in a combat situation. In the same way, a population that is dispersed or scattered are less capable of coordinating their activities and hence less likely to launch a successful insurgency (Weidmann, 2009). Duffy’s (2002) explains the significance of geographical proximity and insurgency. Chechnya sustained a war against Russia for a longer time because they were concentrated in one region but Tataristan could not replicate Chechen’s model because of dispersal of their population. Duffy argues “that the reason is that the dispersed settlement pattern of the Tatars circumscribed their bid for independence, while the concentrated status of the Chechens afforded them both the capability and the legitimacy to pursue independence (p. 85).” Dispersed groups are less capable of mobilizing public opinion in their favor and

Dispersed groups are less capable of mobilizing public opinion in their favor and, therefore, have weak legitimacy and limited capability (Duffy, 2002). It is because of Pashtun belt geographic proximity and strong group solidarity that after spending tremendous resources both military and economical, most of the Afghans see the US as an enemy and not a savior (Yousafzai & Moreau, 2012). Strong group solidarity is also an essential factor in the insurgency. Withers believes that “sense of place is taken to embrace the affective attachment that people have to place” (2009, p. 640). 

Sack (1997) believes homeland has an experiential component, and that is why people are romantically attached and are nostalgic about it. It is this sentimental attachment to a piece of land that evokes strong nationalistic and patriotic feelings against an intruder into that space.


      Based on empirical discussion and extensive literature review, in this paper, it is evident that Geography of an area plays a pivotal role in a guerilla war against any outside invasion. Physically the harsh climatic characteristics, topographical constraints and acquaintance with the land features are favorable factors for the insurgents and posing an imminent threat to the government as well as other forces engaged in military operation/invasion and other punitive actions at both local and regional levels. Additionally, population distribution specifically the ethnolinguistic composition is also a determinant factor in an insurgency situation. It is evident from this research that when a group of people, having the same language, integrated ethnic characteristics, cultural values and sharing the same sentiment with respect to their independence, self-reliance and determined to liberate their homeland from any foreign invaders and occupant, cannot be subdued. Rather they can defeat more powerful forces equipped with the latest warfare technology. This has been vividly proved many times in case of Afghanistan for the last more than a century –whereby the British, the Soviets and the US were given a very tough time by both numerically and a technologically inferior group of resolute fighters.
The present research is focused on the US war on terror where the United States of America along with her more than 45 allies attacked Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 episode. Since this area has proved to be Geographically very hard and highly favorable for guerrilla warfare and the so-called insurgent group had practical experiences of guerrilla warfare and had its root in the local inhabitants. The latter is widely distributed in the whole country in addition to the rugged mountains located on the Eastern side of the Durand Line. The combating experience and tactics of the invaders have been successfully countered and the allied forces substantially failed due to harsh environmental conditions, intricate topographical setup hostile nature of the local inhabitants and ability of the insurgents to capitalize on these favorable factors. Consequently, after huge expenditure on military expedition, indiscriminate bombing of the Pashtun belt, loss of human life and property, the invaders were unable to overcome the region. Thus, the geographical attributes of a place both physical and anthropogenic played an overwhelmingly decisive role in the war on terror initiated by the United States and her allies.


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** Currently serves as Asstt. Prof., Department of Geography, University of Peshawar, Pakistan

  Oldknow, Anthony, Professor of English Literature, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales. Professor Oldknow is also an expert on the subject of Geography. I interviewed him on May 13, 2000. I have cited him in other places too.